This time last year, I published my first and only post detailing life with POTS and my recovery process, My Toothbrush, My Trophy. One hour after hitting the publish button: BOOM, I was back in the hospital for more POTS shenanigans. It felt like some kind of blog jinx! October is POTS Awareness month, and last year my body threw a parade in honor of it.
For me, the thing about POTS is that I didn’t know there was an illness I couldn’t fight my way through. With chronic pain, I had forced my body into submission for so many years- all of my adult life in fact. Whether I needed to utilize walking aids, medications, treatments, or therapies, my crippling pain hadn’t kept me from working, going to school, or being there for my husband and family. So, when my autonomic nervous system kicked it (and it really crapped out on me), I was (and still am) shocked that my willpower has not been enough to overcome.
Last October, the ER doctors thought I was having a heart attack because my chest pains were so intense, like electric jolts piercing my heart. I had experienced chest pains, palpitations, and a racing heart (tachycardia) regularly for years with the onset of POTS, however nothing as intense as the pain that began that morning. The ER had never heard of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or Dysautonomia before (go figure). They didn’t know what my other conditions were either (of course) but I wasn’t as concerned about those at the time. We explained how once upright, my blood pressure drops and heart races, and my autonomic nervous system shuts down. “Oh, almost everyone has that,” the ER doctor said under his breath, chuckling. “Well doctor, everyone doesn’t almost pass out every time they try to sit or stand up,” I whispered through my head pain, angry that he would assume I am confined to lie flat in a bed for years shrouded with earplugs, a headset, and an eye mask- all over a little dizziness upon standing. (Sure, everyone has that). Keep in mind, this is tucked into a tiny dimmed closet-size room in the ER, as my hypersensitivity to light and sound exacerbates my ongoing migraine disorder too much to be around noise. I lucked out with a sweet nurse who knew what RSD was, and she was the only reason I was given special accommodations. They did multiple tests at the hospital, then through the week, I had several rounds of tests at my Cardiologist’s office. You know, the usual fun…
Verdict? They couldn’t find any reason for my heart to experience the additional pain. That was excellent news. POTS is a nervous system condition which effects the way the heart behaves; it isn’t a cardiac condition effecting the way the body behaves. No heart condition- score!
Conclusion: Since they couldn’t find any cause for the pain and onset of increased symptoms, the next 5 months thereafter were out of the doctor’s hands. (Thanks doc!) My fatigue and brain fog were unwavering. Just trying to move my fingers across the keyboard, holding my phone to text, or forming complete thoughts enough to compile a short blog post became so trying…so overwhelming…so frustrating… my short-lived recovery progress had taken a step in the wrong direction. For the first 2 years after the POTS began, I was in stasis mode. Pancake body, syrup brain. I was so ill and no one knew how to help me. After the spinal procedures in 2011 which threw my body into this tangle of illness, I was basically a lump of pain and un-moving frustrated flesh. Having finally made my first bit of progress last year, working so hard to use the restroom on my own and do some of my own personal hygiene from bed, falling backward again was not in my recovery plan! By last Christmas, I became depressed that my body was no longer moving forward and I was still stuck in the same bed going on 4 years after all of the doctors, hospitals, medications and hard work. (If you follow my blog, my posts reflected my disposition.)
Many with autonomic nervous system dysfunction (dysautonomia) carry on normally, dealing with bouts of dizziness or feeling lightheaded periodically. About a quarter of those with POTS are too disabled to work a job. And a small percentage have symptoms which are so severe, they are confined to a bed and may be hospitalized regularly. I fall into the last category, though I haven’t been hospitalized for a whole year- take that chronic illness! (Let’s not count the times I’ve ignored my doctor’s recommendations to go to the ER). A very large number of those with POTS are teen girls. Awareness and treatment options are lacking for the estimated 70 million individuals living with Dysautonomia worldwide. [Dysautonomia International] Conditions like EDS, Fibromyalgia, CRPS/RSD, heart attack, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME/SEID, Chiari Malformation, stroke, Intracranial Hypertension, Traumatic Brain Injury, Spinal Cord Injury and Parkinson’s can cause Dysautonomia and POTS. To find out if you or a loved one have POTS, see a cardiologist for a “tilt table test” and cardiac monitoring.
Symptomatically, POTS is compared to Congestive Heart Failure, COPD, and massive blood loss. I’ve learned that everyone with Dysautonomia experiences it a little differently, but the most prominent symptoms for me have been low blood pressure, fatigue, confusion, trouble concentrating (brain fog), extreme hypersensitivity to sound and light, brain fog, head pain, trouble breathing, syncope/pre-syncope (fainting or almost fainting), vertigo, brain fog, muscle shaking, weakness, trouble digesting and absorbing food (gastroparesis), bladder dysfunction, chest pain, heart palpitations, brain fog, weak pulse laying down, heart racing when upright, orthostatic intolerance, brain fog, and temperature change intolerance…did I remember brain fog?
It took 2 years for me to get properly diagnosed with POTS and Dysautonomia because pain management doctors and primary care doctors don’t know what it is, what the symptoms are, or how to treat it. Just yesterday, my pain management doctor tried to argue that I developed it from “laying around too much” when the immediate onset was actually damage to my spinal cord. For individuals with POTS, the opposite is true. Pushing yourself to do more than your body allows can send your blood pressure plummeting for weeks or months putting you into an almost comatose state, can cause fevers, flu-like symptoms, severe fatigue, wide-spread physical pain, swelling or “blood pooling”, and a long list of intensified symptoms (see all Dysautonomia symptoms here). Last October, for instance, I believe my trip to the ER and subsequent 5 month puddle-of-me was the result of pushing myself to climb a flight of stairs.
Thankfully, this past spring, my body let up enough to allow me back on my journey toward recovery. (Que happy music.) I’m currently doing home physical therapy from bed with a knowledgeable cardiac rehab therapist, I have new goals for my life, and when I am faced with my body’s set-backs, I’ll try not to allow my frustrations to defeat me.
For nearly 11 years I have had a neurological chronic pain condition which is known as mysterious, under-researched, difficult to treat, incurable, lacking in treatment options, and also like Chronic Migraine, many say my chronic pain condition is also “rare” when in fact neither actually should be.
Before I had been diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in 2004 (known as one of the most painful chronic disorders) I had never even heard of it. Neither had my family, friends, and many doctors and nurses have never heard of CRPS (RSD) either. However, 4 years ago when my journey with Chronic Migraine began, I learned that something as common as a headache could be even more mysterious and surprisingly harder to treat. I have been surviving a host of head difficulties: spinal headaches (Cerebro-spinal fluid imbalance), Cluster Headaches, Trigeminal Neuralgia (facial nerve pain) and Chronic Migraine which equals CONSTANT intense, debilitating head pain for the past 4 years straight.
But everyone knows what a migraine is. I could even buy pills at CVS for migraines and headaches, right? So why are there fewer medical options for my head pain than for a widely unheard of, “mysterious” and complex chronic pain condition like CRPS? It is baffling! This is debilitating chronic pain of the brain and doctors seem to have fewer resources and fewer answers to questions as well. It’s “ONLY a migraine” seems to be the overwhelming attitude of society and physicians, and it is because of a lack of awareness. I was part of that unaware group before 4 years ago…before my life and brain changed.
While chronic pain crippled me and affected my life and body in every way, most days I found some ways to function using walking aids like crutches or a wheel chair. In contrast, this pain in my head shuts down my thoughts, my eyes, memory, speech, my ears, balance, and just moving my arm or inhaling too deeply sends an electric jolt through my brain. My entire being is stunted due to my head pain. I would never ever want to minimize the horrors that chronic pain sufferers endure, but I had many more treatment options as a chronic pain sufferer compared to a headache disorder sufferer. In 11 years, I still have not reached the end of all options as a CRPS patient, but within a few months I had tried everything available for this horrible head pain.
Did you know that the NIH claims that Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches are 2 of the MOST DISABLING CONDITIONS in the U.S.? Thirty seven million Americans suffer from migraines; 2-3 million are chronic.
When I was diagnosed with chronic pain, there were so many tests, scans, physical therapy, both medical and alternative resources to exhaust, invasive injections, surgical options, non-invasive therapies, and tons of different kinds of medications. Even though the benefits were minimal, and most things I tried didn’t help at all, there were options available. And options feel a lot like HOPE when you are barely hanging on from the kind of pain CRPS causes. I feel as though it has taken so little time to expend the resources accessible for Migraine Disease, and even all of the headache doctors don’t seem very informed about what to do next, or how to answer what seem like simple questions. As I communicate with others with chronic migraine and other headache disorders, I have found that others feel the same about how their headache doctors treat their serious symptoms.
This is chronic pain of the brain, the part which controls everything in the body! It is WHO I AM. I am basically shut down for operation for most of the past 4 years. Be your own advocate? Try advocating for yourself when you can hardly speak, move, or open your eyes. When the room is spinning every time you move your head, a bird chirping can send you into a “suicide headache,” you dread something as simple as flushing the toilet, swallowing your water, or even blinking your eyes the pain is so unbearable.
Your senses are held prisoner by chronic pain of the brain- the part of you that registers all of the pain signals in your body, and now has become nothing but pain itself. This is not good enough. There are too many of us, and we deserve so much better than a life whispering in the dark.
If you are surviving Chronic Migraine, chronic pain, or other painful debilitating neurological conditions, you are not alone. February 29th is Rare Disease Day. Please share to help spread awareness. Thank you for visiting and for commenting.
In the U.S., more than 37 mill. people suffer from migraines. Studies suggest 13% of U.S. adults have migraines, and 2-3 mill. migraine sufferers are chronic.
Almost 5 million in the U.S. get at least one migraine attack per month, while more than 11 mill. people are moderately to severely disabled due to migraines.
Migraines cost the U.S. more than 31 Billion per year in healthcare
Only $19 million goes into researching migraine disorders
~Find me at @aBodyofHope on Twitter
www.Facebook.com/Living.with.RSD for a positive chronic pain support group welcoming all types of chronic pain conditions
Living in the dark or with a blindfold on, you get used to your surroundings in time. You get used to the way things feel. Your water bottle is always in its place, and you know where to reach your hand to find it. You know each medication by the sound and weight of the pills inside. You get accustomed to the absence of your reflection, because mirrors don’t have a purpose in the dark.
Your fingertips know the feeling of every surface. Your body learns which pieces of furniture are weight-bearing and which give in if you fall into them.
In due time, everything has a place in your dark room. You start to trust yourself in the blackness. The dark is so comfortable, you start to forget what things look like in the full light of day.
This is how living with Depression is. After a while, you almost acclimate to it. Unbearable darkness moves into a cloudy dim that you tell yourself is normal. You start to forget who you once were and how to get back to that person again. You say and do all the things you believe you should do- but the reason you are doing them isn’t clear to you any more. You know this world so intimately that you almost forget there is another way to feel.
Hypersensitive to artificial light- to those who talk about JUST “being positive” or “how to be happy” cause you to cover your eyes in pain. These are the things that remind you how intense it has become.
Someone who loves you opens a window a crack. Just enough to let real sunshine and fresh air in. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror for the first time in…too long. You didn’t even realize the dark had become such a companion to you. Now you see the room with a bit of light cast over it. Your comfortable, perfectly laid out room with all of your things at your knowing fingertips: you finally see…a cluttered dusty mess with dangerous obstacles everywhere.
Going back to the dark isn’t comfortable any more. All you want to do now is paw along the wall searching for that window.
I cannot yet write about my years of ongoing migraine. I really appreciate this writer for being so candid and provocative about her own migraines.